To listen to sky-is-falling opponents of sports betting and expanded gambling in Georgia is to be reminded of Harold Hill in the 1957 Broadway musical “The Music Man.”

In the song, “Ya’ Got Trouble,” Hill, a con man, warns of the perils to the residents of a fictional Midwestern town posed by pool and other lurking vices:

“I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon/Then beer from a bottle/And the next thing you know/Your son is playing for money in a pinch-back suit/And listenin’ to some big outta town jasper/Hearin’ him tell about horse race gamblin’/Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no/But a race where they set down right on the horse.”

Despite intense lobbying by sports teams and the gambling industry, Georgia’s legislators failed to pass a resolution sponsored by Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, that would have opened the door to sports betting and more legal gambling in the Peach State. The mighty push behind the highlights another example of the divide within Georgia’s Republican Party — and one that has made the warning from Meredith Wilson’s 65-year-old musical an urgent campaign issue for other candidates.

“Gambling will destroy our state, and everything it entails. It will just bring more division, more destruction, more poverty,” said Jeanne Seaver, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor and resident of Savannah, who spoke to The Current about the bill. “You’ve seen what it’s done to New Jersey, I don’t want to see Georgia become the new Chicago.”

Jeanne Seaver

Seaver is among the opponents of Stephens’ resolution, many of whom identify as evangelical Christians, that see the possibility of expanded gambling in Georgia as another example of the deep and fundamental social changes in the Peach State. While enumerating the damage they believe a thriving gaming industry in Georgia would inflict on children, families and businesses, their warnings bear the unmistakable whiff of trying to preserve a gauzy, nostalgic portrait of the state that, in 2022, seems naively quaint, if it even exists at all — a portrait akin to Wilson’s make-believe River City.

Asked to describe her vision of the state that expanded gambling would jeopardize, Seaver said: “Anybody in Georgia can be whatever they want to be. They know that they have to go out there and work hard, but they know they’re the only ones stopping them from living their dream.”

She also is quick to point out that her competitor in the Republican primary, Bert Jones, has a family chain of convenience stores that make money off of legal forms of gambling.

GA. Rep. Ron Stephens

Stephens did not respond to requests for comment. But in a recent interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he described his sports betting legislation as a routine function of government.

“All you are doing today … is you are taxing and regulating — and that’s all,” the newspaper quoted him last week as saying. “And that’s because they’re already doing sports betting.”

Mike Griffin, public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, notes that up to 48 states in the U.S. have some form of legalized gambling and that 85% of Americans have gambled at least once in their lifetimes. No matter, he says. He’s created a list of 10 reasons why Christians should not gamble. “Gambling is immoral and out of character with biblical Christianity,” he says. “The very nature of the predatory gambling industry (The Lottery, Video Coin Operated Machines, Sports Betting, Casinos, and Parimutuel Betting) is antithetical to living the Christian life.”

“Georgia just needs to stay Georgia and not turn Atlanta into Las Vegas,” Griffin said in an interview.

The problem for Griffin, Seaver and other opponents of gambling in Georgia, of course, that what happens in Vegas has not stayed in Vegas.

The allure of gambling profits, accelerated when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1992 law that effectively banned commercial sports betting in most states, has spilled over Georgia’s borders, thanks in part to the internet. Terry Bradshaw hawks his betting app every fall Sunday afternoon on Fox Sports.   

Professional sports teams that once railed against betting as a corrupting influence now rush to embrace it. The legalization of sports wagering in Georgia is supported by the Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance, a coalition of four professional franchises — the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta United.

In short, Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Reno have long ceased being the dens of iniquity that many condemned (and occasionally visited.) When it comes to gambling, to an unprecedented degree America has bought in.

Proponents of Rep. Stephens’ resolution say that since sports betting cannot be stopped, Georgia should regulate it and at the very least, get a piece of the estimated $1.5 billion that Georgians illegally spend on sports betting annually. It’s a lucrative revenue stream, producing taxes and fees that will be used to fund scholarships and K-12 education.

John Kindt, an opponent of the gambling industry, said that Stephens and other pro-betting lawmakers in the Georgia legislature have adopted a wedge strategy, backed by what he says are as many as 80 lobbyists.

“Once they get their foot in the door, everything is wide open,” said Kindt, a retired professor of business and legal policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They call sports gambling ‘entertainment’ now, but it’s really just a blank check for all types of gambling.”

What advocates of sports betting and other forms of gambling fail to acknowledge publicly, he said, is the effectiveness of the gambling industry in using techniques of modern advertising and knowledge of addictive behavior to gull consumers, especially youth, out of their money.

Gambling creates no product “except new addictive gamblers, new bankruptcies, and new crime.” For every dollar of new revenue for the government that comes from taxing gambling, at least three to five dollars—perhaps as much are $12—are spent to address its social and economic costs, he said.

Kindt, Seaver and other gambling opponents ridicule the claim that sports betting is merely entertainment akin to watching television or attending a concert. Said Kindt: “They claim it’s ‘entertainment.’ I’m sorry. Addicting my grandkids is not a ‘product.’ It’s a social problem.”

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...